Is the ultimate biotech goal to create a new human race? Some say yes.
One who believes the future of Mankind will be shaped in the image of the gods is Juan Enriquez, the managing director of Excel Venture Management, a firm that invests venture capital into biotech start-up companies.
Recently, he spoke at the annual Technology Review's EmTech conference and wowed the attendees by making the bold claim that scientists at some biotech companies will change the human race as we know it. He said the key is the breakthrough in technology that permits literally rewriting the code of life—similar in some respects to rewriting computer programming code. This ability, Enriquez predicts, will launch a global revolution that will be so great the industrial, atomic, and digital ages will be miniscule in comparison.
For the first time in evolution a product of evolution can engineer itself. Humanity is at the dawn of creating new species, modifying existing ones, and modifying itself.
Biological architecture will now be designed to suit the purposes of humans upon perceived needs and market demands. Beyond Darwinism, biotech is ready to begin the next adventure by rewriting life itself.
The author of the international bestseller, "As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth," Enriquez has also penned a new eBook that explores some of the ideas he shared at the conference: "Homo Evolutis: A Short Tour of Our New Species."
In an interview with a senior editor of Technology Review, Emily Singer, the entrepreneur and futurist shared his thought on the coming biotech revolution—a revolution he sees changing the world rapidly and irrevocably.
"People think this technology will just change pharma or biotech," he told Singer, "but it's much bigger than that. For example, it's already changing the chemical industry. Forty percent of Dupont's earnings today come from the life sciences. It's going to change everything; it will change countries, who's rich and who's poor. It's going to create new ethics."
If some think this may smack of Aldous Huxley's frightening novel, "Brave New World," they may not be far from the truth. But the genie is out of the bottle and this genie is a 21st Century one moving at warp speed.
Ethics and morality must play an important role for those redesigning the human race. Enriquez concedes that it must, but how and when it will be applied to a fast moving target is really an open question.
So what of the issue of genetic variation? "The issue…is a really uncomfortable question," he admits, "one that for good reason, we have been avoiding since the 1930s and '40s."
During the 1920s a movement called eugenics took hold. Margaret Sanger was a proponent and she advocated mass abortions of minorities and the indigent poor. Aldous Huxley's own brother, Julian, was fascinated by the concept. Julian Huxley was a famous member of the British Eugenics Society and held the organization's presidency from 1959–1962.
As a warning to the public on the potential pitfalls, evils and inherent soullessness of eugenics, Aldous Huxley wrote "Brave New World" to stop people like his brother. The Nazi hierarchy also embraced eugenics and incorporated it into their stated goal to build a "master race."
For the Nazis to have adopted it was natural, the core goal of eugenics is to create a master race of humans at the expense of anyone deemed unacceptable to the self-appointed overlords controlling the process. The process seeks the unattainable: perfection.
Addressing the uncomfortable subject of eugenics—which any biotechnology applied to the creation of a new and better human must incorporate—Enriquez told Technology Review, "A lot of the research behind the eugenics movement came out of elite universities in the U.S. It was disastrously misapplied. But you do have to ask, if there are fundamental differences in species like dogs and horses and birds, is it true that there are no significant differences between humans?"
That question is one that philosophers, meta-scientists, ethicists, and even biologists have posed for generations. There is no easy answer.
"We are going to have an answer to that question very quickly. If we do, we need to think through an ethical, moral framework to think about questions that go way beyond science."
The "science" of the human spirit cannot be manufactured, packaged or sold. Biotech will have its limits as humans have their limits.
Science and technology will forge ahead. Nothing can stop it, nor should anything stop it. But every person must bear the responsibility for whatever future Mankind creates. And every technology is literally a two-edged sword.
And swords can save lives…or cut throats.